Sunday, February 6, 2011

Jury Duty; It's A Service

Just this week, I completed my first actual jury service, as an alternate juror for a civil suit. While I have been summoned annually, I have never been entered into a jury, until this year. I found the experience to be highly educational and really felt good about being part of a small group of people, assigned the task of sorting out problems between two parties.

For years, whenever I mentioned receiving a summons, friends, coworkers and colleagues would say, "can't you get out of it?" I have frequently thought this a rather cavalier attitude toward a minor role that is meant to help our judicial system and our fellow citizens. Yes, I know that the summons can come at inconvenient times in one's life, but surely not every occasion is inconvenient, is it? It seems as if avoidance is the regular attitude toward this very necessary public service. And, yes, it is a public service--the public serves!

I have to say that I found the entire process very interesting. The judge and her attendant, clerk and court reporter were extremely efficient. The judge, in particular, was engaging and strove to give the pool of jurors the information they needed, in order to do their job with confidence, in as clear and engaging a manner as possible. My experience turned around the notions one has had from watching crime/courtroom drama, over the years. The most vivid actor, based on this, my single experience, is the judge, not the attorneys. The judge must command the courtroom, certainly, but also exhibit interest and care, with regard to jurors, counsel and witnesses.

I sat in the assigned courtroom for four days of voir dire, as one after another juror was dismissed. Mine was the last name called. After questioning, I was not kicked loose, but retained to be one of two alternates for this case. It was sometimes appalling, hearing the responses some people had to questions of counsel. Some of the answers seemed truly calculated toward a goal of "getting off the jury."

I have to say, I believe in public service. I believe that we are here in such vast numbers to help each other. I know that jury service can be a hardship for some working people, but the one thing I can say is that jury service is very interesting. It is in no way a waste of time. Being out of work, right now, I actually went into jury cattle call hoping that I would end up in a courtroom.

The only complaint I could possibly register about my experience is that it took so long to get through the security check line at the single entrance. In these days of downsizing and budget crises, there is great demand for security, but no one wants to pay people to do it! The Superior Court building that I was assigned to had multiple entrances, but everyone had to go through one set of doors, regardless of whether you were going for traffic tickets, jury assignment or litigation.

The case to which I was assigned was convoluted, having to do with a small business (internet café) in breach of an undisclosed exclusive use agreement another business (fast food sandwich shop) had with the landlord of the mixed use business park, of which each building had a separate zone definition. It did not help that the city where the business was located did not have designations for restaurants of any kind, categorizing them all as "retail sales".

Essential questions in this case were of these varieties: What constitutes a "sandwich"; What constitutes a "restaurant"; What, if any, are the differences between a "restaurant" and a "fast food restaurant" and a "café"; Are landlords obligated to disclose zoning issues and exclusive use agreements to businesses planning to lease their space; If the city does not demand that a new business request a special use permit when plans are submitted that clearly show a use not compatible with the defined zone for the space, can the city later come back and shut down the business for failing to conform to the zoning ordinances; should a plaintiff receive damages for lost profits or even emotional trauma?

I have the impression that many of the people who automatically want to "get out of jury duty" have a basic distrust of the process. Some people may not believe that jurors unversed in the law should be allowed to make decisions about awarding damages.

I can report that the jurors in this case were from a varied demographic. The questions they (and I asked) of some witnesses were really excellent. (Did you know that you, as a jury member, might have the opportunity to ask questions of a witness?) The judge was really excellent, guiding the jury through the legal points, guiding witnesses, fielding objections and motions and sidebars of counsel. There were some really exciting moments, during testimony. We had a hostile witness or two. We had extra counsel, showing up to support a witness, trying to make an objection. We had attorneys telling us that a sandwich is sometimes not a sandwich, a café is not really a restaurant (especially if the zoning says it can't be), a kitchen is not a place where food would necessarily be prepared. We were presented interesting "red herrings" by both sides. We jurors were could not talk about the case amongst ourselves until deliberations, and we did not, even though there themes hanging in the air during breaks. You could look into the eyes of fellow jurors and know that they were thinking exactly what you were thinking about what had happened in the courtroom just before the break.

Finally, after all of the testimony had been given, the jury was given preliminary instructions from the judge, heard final statements of the attorneys, then the alternates were cut loose (unless someone had a heart attack or an auto accident), before the judge issued final instructions to the jury. At that point, I left. My fellow alternate and I felt confident that the twelve jurors would come to a reasonable verdict. We did not know if we would ever know the outcome. (sigh) I figured out in my mind what I felt was a reasonable outcome.

Several days later, I was surprised to receive a call from the clerk at the courthouse! She thanked me for my service and reported to me what the verdict was, and that there had been damages awarded, and what they were. "You are free for another year, and thanks again," I could hear her smiling as she said it. The decision had not been cut and dried... they struggled. The judge had to send them back twice because there were not enough people agreeing with some of the decisions.

I had read the other jurors correctly; their decision was very close to the one I would have made, and there were reasonable damages awarded, in the way that I would have. I believe that justice was done in that case, and that a jury of twelve average people were able to be impartial, fair and honest to both plaintiff and defense.

The system does work, if you let it work, and if you, when you are called, add yourself to the mix by serving. If you should ever be in a situation where you find yourself in a courtroom, I recommend the following: have faith in yourself, have faith in your attorneys, have faith in the process, have faith in the judge, and most of all, have faith in your fellow citizens who have been called to serve you in the due process system.

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